Red Sea Passage Part Three: Voyage of the Damned

We left Suakin, Sudan and headed for Port Ghalib, Egypt. Port Ghalib is about 420 miles north of Suakin, and some of the best cruising grounds in the Red Sea lay between the two. There are lots of reefs for snorkeling and diving, and marsas for walking and birding. A marsa is a nearly closed off bay. Usually, one enters through a narrow channel between reefs to find an opened area. Some marsas are small and can only support a few boats, others are quite large; all give pretty good protection. I was looking forward to a little exploring and snorkeling in clear water. The chart guides mentioned marsas where flamingoes, spoonbills, herons and other birds could be seen wading in the mud flats. I did see a small flock of flamingoes from a distance as we left Suakin, but I was hoping to get up close and personal with a large group. I knew exploration would be limited because Gene’s leg was still healing and he would not be able to swim or go ashore for fear of re-infection. Still, a few abbreviated, solitary excursions would be better than nothing.

A few hours out the engine began to overheat. We weren’t getting fresh water coolant through the engine and we had to turn it off. Oh well, we are a sailboat, right? We would just have to tack. Our 420-mile trip suddenly became a 630-mile trip. It was our continuing bad luck that we would be engineless in what is arguably the WORST place in the world to be engineless when you’re heading north. The wind comes from the north 80% of the time, and an engine is required for transit through the Suez Canal. The option is an expensive towing.

We tacked towards Saudi Arabia. The shipping lanes were about twenty miles out and we figured we would go out to them before heading back toward the reefs on the African side. Needless to say, reef snorkeling and marsa exploring were now out of the question. We didn’t want to get close to a reef. I was more than disappointed. Unlike Gene, I’m a lousy sailor and yachty. I really don’t even care much for boats. I have to have occasional encounters with terra firma to keep my sanity.

It doesn’t take long to figure out the weather in the Red Sea. The only kind of weather is wind, and the wind is either blowing over 25 knots, or, it is not blowing at all. Soon after we shut the engine off, the wind began to freshen and we put a second reef in the main. Soon after that, the wind freshened even more so we took in all but a bit of the jib. Soon after that, water was breaking over the bow. I hadn’t locked down the forward hatch, and we had a wave cascade into the forward peak where our bed is. The mattress was soaked.

We were flying a hanky-sized jib and a double reefed main, so we could no longer sail a decent angle to the wind. The wind was gusting to 35 knots and the seas were steep and short. We kept falling off waves and pounding down into the narrow troughs. You have to be below decks in a sailboat to really appreciate the incredible noise generated by beating in big seas. It sounds as though the boat will break to bits. Our wire rope baby stay was unraveling and we knew it wouldn’t be long before it snapped. Gene had jury rigged a line to it so that when it went, the mast would still be supported, but our broken boom episode was still fresh in my mind and I began to worry about the mast coming down.

The rough seas not only produced the drop offs and the banging, but also, a lot of motion and I was seasick. I tried to take some pills, but I just threw them up. I carried my zip-lock barf bag with me everywhere. The mal-de-mer was compounded by a monster headache brought on by fumigation. Our fuel tank is under the starboard settee in the main salon. It’s a forty gallon tank with a small gage in the top. The gasket under the gage had disintegrated and a small trickle of diesel fuel flowed continuously from the tank to the fiberglass beneath it. The boat had to be closed to keep out the sea and the fumes were over-powering. In between the openings and closings of my trusty zip-lock, I tore off the settee cushions, lifted the wood covers, and swabbed out the diesel. I washed all I could reach with dish soap to try and get rid of residue. I knew it would need to be done again because it still leaked, but cleaning it helped a bit.

After about eight hours of getting nowhere but east and west, dropping off 15 foot waves, listening to the bangs that I was convinced were the sounds of the mast’s death throes, the thunderous booms on the hull when a wave hit us sideways, being poisoned by noxious fumes and throwing up pieces of my stomach, I couldn’t stand anymore. I screamed at Gene to heave to. As long as we weren’t getting anywhere, we might as well not get there quietly. We took in the rest of the jib and pointed into the wind. We did go northerly now at about one and a half knots because of the current. Instead of sailing fast in the wrong direction and taking a beating, we just floated over the waves. The noise stopped and my nerves began to settle. We found that during the nightmare hours, the baby-stay had given up and Gene’s back-up rig was under pressure.

Because we had water crashing over the boat, we started to get water collecting in the bilge. Our bilge is flat-bottomed and very shallow. It wasn’t long before water started to come up from under the floor. I flicked on the electric bilge pump and it wouldn’t pump. Okay, no reason to panic. We have a manual bilge pump. Gene went out to the cockpit where the manual pump is located, and started pumping. Of course, it was broken. Gene got out the bucket and sponge and began emptying the bilge by the second manual method. I took my zip-lock bag and went to the v-berth to get my three-hour off-watch sleep. Oh yeah, the bed is soaked. Back to the main salon and a too narrow settee.

When I woke, I headed for the head. Now I know that many of you have already figured out that I’m going to tell you that it was the next thing that broke. OK smarties, but were you going to guess that it was the first time I had to go number two in five days?

Gene started taking the head apart. Yes, I will freely admit that Gene gets to do all the crappy jobs on the boat. (It was also his off-watch time.) He emptied the hoses into a bucket, and carried it out the hatch for overboard disposal. He was on the third bucketful when we were hit by a large wave and Gene lost his balance. A bucket of smelly brown liquid poured over the starboard settee. I believe that incident was my breaking point; the point where I decided I was going home as soon as I could. No adventure was worth this nightmare of a voyage. To quasi-quote a famous fictional American sailor, “I had all I could stands, and I couldn’t stands no more!”

Fortunately, we had recently had our main salon cushions covered in Mello-Hyde (a marine grade vinyl). A bleach water solution had things good as new in short order, even with a one-handed scrub-down. My other hand held my zip-lock bag; the last thing I needed was another mess to clean up.

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